10/21/2020Small Business Spotlight
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba: Texas's First Female African American Perfumer
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, owner of Pink MahogHany Fragrances, shares how she's grown her niche perfumery and developed its signature scents.
10/21/2020Small Business Spotlight
Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba, owner of Pink MahogHany Fragrances, shares how she's grown her niche perfumery and developed its signature scents.
In this exclusive interview, niche perfumery owner Chavalia Dunlap-Mwamba shares how she turned her lifelong passion for fragrances into her small business, Pink MahogHany. Big thanks to Chavalia for taking the time to share her journey! You can find Chavalia and Pink MahogHany on Etsy, Facebook, and Instagram.
Welcome to Hatch Small Business Spotlights, where small business owners share stories about getting started, lessons learned and victories they've won along the way to building their businesses. I'm Steven, and today I'm speaking to Chavalia, who created Pink Mahoghany to share her lifelong passion for fragrance with the world. It's a really cool company. Chavalia has a really interesting backstory and a lot of great tips for any small business owner, so let's get to our conversation.
My name Chavalia and I am a fragrance designer from Texas. I am actually the first African-American female niche perfumer in the state of Texas, not the only but just the first. And I specialize in perfumes for both men and women, aromatherapy products in the form of essential oil sprays and diffuser blends, hand sanitizers and vehicle diffusers that are all made with organic materials.
Was this something that you were always interested in? How did your interest in fragrance come about?
I grew up in a very small city, in the rural part of the city so I was always outside and always exploring nature, always smelling everything that I could get my hands on, as far as pine cones. Pine trees are very prominent here in East Texas, in the city that I'm in, in Longview. I always liked to smell the outdoors, grass, nature, leaves, bushes, and that kind of grew into wanting to determine the different types of scent that people have, because we all know that everybody has their own distinctive and unique scent.
I would challenge myself with the help of my aunt and uncle at the time, who were like brothers and sisters to me, and they would have me to leave the room. And if we would have company, someone would enter our living room, and when they would leave my aunt and uncle would bring me back into the living room and have me to try to see if I could guess who had been in that particular room. And I always got it right.
I know that's kind of crazy, but that's when I started to realize that I had a very keen sense of smell. And from there, it just grew into wanting to wear lotions at a very young age. Whatever products my mom would put on my hair or bath products I would use, I just really took in everything related to scent. And when I got old enough where we would go to the mall or go to different locations where they had maybe just a fragrance counter, that's the place that I would always like to go. She would be shopping either for me or just herself, and I would always go to the fragrance counter to kind of kill time. But I figured out that I actually loved being over there. I loved seeing what was out, what the market trends were at the time, what the popular fragrances were.
And as I got older and started wearing fragrance, I noticed that some of them started to smell different on my skin but it was supposed to still be the same fragrance. That's what kind of led me down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out, well, why does that occur? Then that led me to reformulations and learning about the actual perfumers behind the fragrances. As opposed to in my younger years, I thought that it was just the laboratory or manufacturer that made the fragrances, not necessarily individuals that sat down drop by drop to actually create a fragrance.
Once I figured that out, I wanted to learn more about the creative side of perfumery. And just in conversations with people, fragrance would always come up. And what I started noticing was that some people would have a not-so-pleasant experience with fragrance. Whether it was "Well, I can't wear perfumes. They make my head hurt or they're too strong," it was something negative. It was always something negative. And me being the type of person that I am, I like to explore challenges. I don't know why that is, but that's just part of my nature. I wanted to figure out, well, this is something that I love, why is this particular individual not able to enjoy something that has so many different memories attached to it, whether it triggers a memory or creates new ones.
I started taking some courses online from PerfumersWorld in Thailand. They had complimentary courses and started learning about vocabulary. And the word phthalates was one of the ingredients that I had learned about. And I was like, what is a phthalate? Not only is the spelling really interesting because it's P-H-T-H, so at first I didn't know how to pronounce it. But I started researching that particular vocabulary term and figured out that, at the time, phthalates were used to extend the life of a fragrance.
These individuals that were saying that this fragrance last a long time, but it makes my head hurt, it's too strong, phthalates were the cause because what it's designed to do is to extend the life of a fragrance and make it last for hours and hours and hours.
Ah, I see.
And I was like, "Well, that's kind of cool on one side. But if it's causing adverse reactions, that's not so cool." Fragrance can definitely be positive or negative according to the ingredients or materials that are used. That's what led me to want to create my own brand. I don't consider Pink MahogHany to be an all-natural brand, but I do try my best not to use phthalates.
It sounds like you were definitely interested in making your own fragrances for a long time. At what point did you decide to do this as a business?
Registering my business name was actually a college graduation gift to myself. In 2005, I went ahead and protected the name. I wasn't really sure what angle I wanted to take as far as fragrance was concerned, I just knew I wanted to do something with fragrance. I would say 2006 to about 2008, I started actually procuring materials, cheap materials to kind of play with and see how long they last or how they work well together, or in the fragrance world, how well they play together.
But it wasn't until 2011 that I actually came out with my first fragrance that was ready to be worn, so it was a pretty long process. From 2005-2011, I didn't release anything because I wanted to immerse myself in the brand or in the business of fragrance and learn all the vocabulary that I could, learn everything about blending, mixing. And I'm still learning, but that was just the first wave.
How do you get people to test this? I feel like they have to take kind of a leap of faith when someone comes to you and says, "Hey, can I make you smell this way?" How did that work?
I actually started looking for opportunities to get the fragrance out into people's hands and I had to really be creative. I would hit up not just bloggers or fragrance bloggers, people that were looking for smaller brands to review. I also started partnering with smaller companies in the Dallas area that were doing gift bags or swag bags and they were looking for unique things to place inside the bag. It was like a product-for-exposure exchange, so I didn't have to necessarily pay anything other than me paying for my vials and everything to make the fragrances that were going to go into the bags.
Once I started getting on social media and kind of posting about it to my personal page, people would share it or they would inbox me and let me know, "Hey, there's an event that's happening next month, would you be interested?" Or just even friends that were having events. And once I saw that there was a really positive response, that kind of gave me enough fuel to say, "Okay, I think that I should go ahead and start with this fragrance because it's getting the most acclaim," if you will.
Which one was that?
French Cuffs is the name of the fragrance that was the first right once I released. And it's actually a men's fragrance, but women liked it too. It's really smokey. It has notes of, what I would like to call, sweet smoke. It has also some notes of juniper. It's really an earthy, smoky-type fragrance.
And I started contacting different types of events around the fall/winter, so it was perfect for the cooler weather. And when I saw that people actually felt the same way that I did, or I would wear it out and someone would stop me and ask me what I was wearing, that also helped me to realize that it was definitely something that I should explore.
Tell me about a few of the challenges that you encountered as you were finally starting to make a career out of this, make a business out of this.
One of the main challenges early on that I had was trying to get the exposure. Once I started to grow, trying to figure out the exposure that I started to see that I needed. As opposed to just participating in every event that was available, because all of the people at those events were not necessarily my target customer. Starting to be more discerning about the events, which of course meant that not only did I have to do more research, but I also had to figure out who am I really trying to target? Or what vision do I see for this fragrance brand? How is it going to be different from other brands when there are so many that are available? What's going to set me apart?
I really had to sit down and think about, what do I want Pink Mahoghany to look like? What do I want the person to look like? What's their background? What's their job occupation? I kind of had to go back to the drawing board and figure those things out and then start to retarget. And not necessarily rebrand, but just redo how I was approaching the type of events or the types of individuals that I wanted to approach.
Where did your support come from in those times? Where were you getting the funding to get this off the ground?
I was saving a portion of my teacher checks and really trying to live as frugal as possible cutting costs, because fragrance can get to be very expensive, especially when you start dealing with naturally derived ingredients, which is one of the aspects of Pink MahogHany is to have naturally derived ingredients. I really, really had to scale back.
I liked to go and shop and get some nice clothes and shoes every once in a while, and I got to a point where I was like, "Okay, I'm just going to invest any profits that I make, I'm going to reinvest into the business." And I'm also going to see how I can cut costs. Whether it's a cable bill or not getting the new vehicle that I want, keeping my old faithful and just making sure I keep that up. It was a lot of decisions, some of them a little bit difficult to make for the sake of my business to get it where I wanted it to be.
How did you kind of become aware of Hatch and what kind of difference did it make to get that line of credit through them?
I want to say that it was an email, and I honestly don't remember, from home but it was a third party email. And it came at the exact time that I was looking for some type of funding, whether it was through a credit card or through a small business loan. And when I went to the website and I fought all of the perks, and of course, I did research on Hatch and saw that it was an accredited business, I was like, "Okay, this is right up my alley. This is perfect."
And when I looked at the terms and everything, it was everything that I was looking for. It was a no-brainer for me to try and apply. And I was like, if it's meant for me to have, then I will be awarded the credit card. And sure enough, I was, and the rest is history.
And it definitely helped me with inventory. Because sometimes I have to place an emergency order like an overnight-it or either two-day process it, and my Hatch card has definitely helped to get me out of those times. I have a couple of suppliers that I use, just a handful of suppliers. I've been using the same ones for years and sometimes when they are out of a particular ingredient or it's becoming scarce, then I have to go and outsource internationally. I have to go to an international supplier. It can cause a lot of delays, if you will. Or sometimes I'll have to use an alternative ingredient. Or they'll say, "Well, this is backordered and you won't be able to place this order for another week or two, or you can go ahead and pre-order it, but it be delivered until a certain time."
Being able to use my Hatch card, as opposed to trying to dip into my own funds, has really helped because if I have to pay for international expenses and I don't want it to come out of pocket for that, then I'm definitely able to use my Hatch card to get me out of that bind. And I can go ahead and place my order internationally for the rare materials or the raw materials that I need. And then I don't have to worry about how much it's going to be for shipping or how long it's going to take to arrive because I'll be able to go ahead and pay for those expedited costs.
Tell me about how the business has grown. What are the challenges as it grows, and what does it look like now? How does it look different from when you were just starting out?
It's still just me. However, I am finding that my email response times are a little bit slower than they used to be. I used to be that person that would check every single email, every single day, and respond. But with the growth, especially the surge of individuals and companies seeking fragrance options, either they have diffusers now or they're looking for a way to create some type of zen if they're working from home. Now with that growth, I'm finding that I definitely need some outside help, even if it's just someone to help me manage the email part. Really being organized and prioritizing has definitely been more important with the growth.
How has the pandemic affected what you do? I mean, has it changed how your customers are acting? Has it changed how you interact with them?
It actually has helped. I know that that's not true for every business, but I had to pivot. I was like, okay, people are not necessarily going to want to buy fragrance right now, so how can I adapt? I jumped on the hand sanitizer bandwagon before it was actually a bandwagon. This was before there were a surge of businesses that were offering them and then having recalls, and then with that whole thing.
I wanted to provide hand sanitizers that would be enjoyed by both men and women, because that's what Pink MahogHany is, fragrances for both her and him. Her being Pink, him being MahogHany, and then there's an extra H in the word MahogHany on purpose just to represent for him and her. I decided to create, just like I do with my perfumes, create a hand sanitizer for men and a hand sanitizer that would be a little bit more feminine. And then some that could go for gender neutral, because there are some people who they may still like pineapple, but not just pineapple, maybe pineapples and wood or pineapples and cedar.
What are you hoping? For the next few years, what are your hopes for Pink MahogHany?
I've actually already kind of started. I'm working with a couple of candle brands now who want to provide a unique aspect to the scents that they have to also set them apart. I want to definitely get into formulating for more companies, more brands. Eventually working with companies on a larger scale, like hotels to create bespoke fragrances for them, car dealerships, boutiques, strip malls, where they pumped the set through the pipes while people are shopping as a marketing tactic. I definitely want to get more into the side of helping other brands, but it's still my creative nose behind the brand. But helping them to have their own unique identity through scent.
Cool. That's awesome and that's really exciting, and best of luck. I guess the last thing would just be, if you have any final messages that you want people to hear and also how can they check out Pink Mahoghany?
Awesome. I guess, as coming from a sole proprietor, one thing that I would say, especially if you are a parent or you have other obligations, is to definitely take out some time for you. Do some self-care, even if it's just 15 minutes, one day a week. That is important, an uninterrupted 15 minutes. Because as business owners, especially small business owners, we have a tendency to feel like we have to work around the clock because it is just us. But if we spin our wheels too much, then we're definitely going to spin out of control.
I would say definitely scheduling some self-care, but you can definitely check out Pink Mahoghany. We are active on Instagram. It's pm_fragrances, and that's on Instagram. On Facebook it's PM Fragrances, and also our Etsy store is pinkmahoghany, with that extra H, .etsy.com.
All right, well, awesome. Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with me. And yeah, best of luck. It was really, really cool to hear about your company.
Thank you so much, and I really do appreciate the opportunity to share.
This interview was recorded and produced by the awesome team at Artifact. Give them a visit if you're looking for personal podcasts to tell your story!